Do You Have a Not To-Do List?

Everyone’s heard of the “To-Do List.” Whether you use Outlook, Gmail, a dedicated task manager like Nozbe (which I use), or the back of a paper napkin, the idea is the same: you list in priority order the items you want to get done. Simple. Elegant. Powerful.

Photo courtesy of ©, Image #7206932

Photo courtesy of ©

Until you have more items that you can physically get done.

Enter the “Not To-Do List.” I stumbled across this idea several years ago, and I keep coming back to it. The idea is to list all the activities you are intentionally going to stop doing for the sake of greater productivity.

Here’s why this is important. As people succeed at work, they attract more and more assignments. It’s like they become a task magnet. “Give it to Laurie,” they say. “She’ll to a great job!” The problem is that people are a finite resource. I don’t care how good you are, you only have so much energy and so much time. It’s true for me. It’s true for you.

The only way for these super-productive people to continue to grow professionally without going crazy is periodically to decide what they are not going to do.

This is particularly important for people who have just been promoted to a new job. That’s when you really face the pressure to perform and it’s the most difficult to say, “no.”

But you must say “no” if you are going to say “yes” to the things that really count—both in your job and in your life.

Keep in mind that the great risk for people in a new job is that they continue to do their old job. Read that sentence again.

“Now why would they do that?” you ask? Probably because it is familiar. And probably because their supervisor didn’t tell them they had to stop doing it. Being aware of this dynamic is half of the battle.

The other half of the battle is to sit down and literally create a Not To-Do List. Here’s how:

  1. Find a quiet place where you can think.
  2. Look at your previous month’s calendar activities. Write down anything you’re not sure really fits your current job description.
  3. Look at your upcoming appointments for the next month. Again, write down things that are questionable in terms of your current job description.
  4. Go through your to-do list(s) and do the same thing. Write down the questionable activities.
  5. You should now have a list of “not to-do candidates.” Good work! You’re almost done.
  6. Now go through the list and put an asterisk beside each item that is significant enough that you want to add it to your official “Not To-Do List.”

Once you get your list done, share it with your assistant (if you have one) and your colleagues. If you can enlist their help (no pun intended), they can assist you in screening out activities and tasks that no longer belong on your to-do list.

It’s especially important to discuss your Not To-Do List with your boss. You need her buy-in so she doesn’t keep assigning you work that both of you have decided you should no longer be doing.

Just to stimulate your own thinking, here is a the Not To-Do list I prepared back when I became CEO:

Not To-Do List
  1. Review book proposals or manuscripts for possible publication
  2. Write deal memos
  3. Negotiate contracts with agents or authors
  4. Meet prospective new authors unless they have significant brand potential
  5. Attend publishing meetings unless the topic is vision or strategy
  6. Write marketing plans
  7. Travel by car to other cities unless they are less than one hour a way
  8. Check my own voice mail
  9. Read unfiltered e-mail
  10. Answer my own phone
  11. Respond to (or feel the need to respond to) unsolicited sales pitches or proposals of any kind
  12. Attend process review meetings unless there’s a compelling reason for me to be there
  13. Attend trade shows for more than two days
  14. Serve as a director on more than two outside boards

Even if you haven’t just been promoted, you will find the Not To-Do List helpful. This is especially true if you want to maintain some semblance of balance in your life.

If you don’t periodically take a machete to your to-do list, it will eventually grow over everything and strangle you! I know of no better way to “buy time” than with this simple tool.

Question: What do you need to stop doing? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Randy Walton

    Great article. I recently started using a tool to help me with the accountability around my do and do not list stuff. It’s been a life changer in helping provide simple and really effective prompting and shared accountability. You might like checking it out.

    It’s free and I think will continue to be a free service.

  • James Pinnick

    You are so right on your post, especially at the end…
    If you don’t periodically take a machete to your to-do list, it will eventually grow over everything and strangle you!

    My list keeps growing but I can’t seem to apply how to seperate the to do and the not to do. How do you specify which is which? I understand it’s more priority and delegating, but its hard to push harder and do more when its not really my time or job to do it. If that makes any sense!


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  • Anonymous

    I’ve been trying to implement this for a while, to varying degrees of success.  One thing that is helping is advice from Leo Babuta.   I don’t remember the exact article, but he suggests removing one thing at a time.  It keeps me from being overwhelmed from the huge list I have of things that I do that I probably shouldn’t.

    Of course, there’s a lot to be said for just ripping the band-aid off in one swift motion…

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  • Tamara Vann

    This is some of the best advice I’ve seen in a long time. Leaders have to focus on what’s important to succeed. That not-to-list really calls for some self-analysis. Businesses as a whole could benefit from doing the same in regard to customer service. Focus on what’s important – as this video – points out and let the rest take care of itself.

  • Uma Maheswaran S

    – opening and answering my email early in the morning when I get up.
    – answering calls while driving

  • Melissa Mashburn ~ Mel’s World

    Great stuff here Michael, thanks so much for continuously providing quality content…you have no idea how much of an impact you are making!

  • Robert Ewoldt

    Michael, this was a good post for me to read, because I’m getting to the point in my job where I can’t take on any more tasks, and I need to start trimming the tasks that I’m doing.  Thanks for the post.

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  • Carrie Starr

    I am a college professor getting ready for the new school year and have found making a “not to-do list” very helpful.  Every year I become over-committed and stretched to the point of exhaustion by mid-semester. There are some clear patterns that put me into this state of “spread too thin.”  Making a not to-do list has helped me think through the things I need to say “no” to to keep my priorities straight.

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  • sandro

    Great! This is the next step for me after I read the book ”
    When God Wasn’t Watching, the Devil Created Busines” which really changed my life! ( A not to do List would be useful, more than taht, lifechanging. I`m gonna start with it today let´s see what happens!

  • June Wilson

    Hi Michael, I was curious for insight on why you use Nozbie for to-do lists and not Evernote?  I keep hearing I can manage to-do lists in Evernote (I just started using Evernote this week) but don’t want to go a mile in that direction if it’s best or better to use something like Nozbie for multiple to-do lists.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Yes, you can use Evernote if your needs are simple. However, it doesn’t provide a mechanism for due dates, which is something I really need. Having said that, plenty of people use Evernote for task management.

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  • Mary

    This is the first thing I found after giving up googling “is there an app that will pop up a window telling you what you should be doing no matter what website you click on?” 


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  • Brad Farris

    One other great source of not-to-do items is your team. I always ask team members “What am I doing that you should be doing.” Then if I agree, move the task to them and they are in charge of it. This lets me keep growing and learning (and keeps them growing and learning too).

  • Sonja Gross

    Excellent post.

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  • Michelle

    Very timely post!  Soon after I transferred to a new position, I was asked to fill in for someone else while she was on vacation because I was the only other person certified to do her job.  And honestly, I enjoyed doing her job.  But I was trying to do my job at the same time and could not say no.  Well, she went on another leave of absence a few weeks later, but this time I was much more prepared and able to say no.  I didn’t necessarily have a “do not do” list, but rather a priority list where items with lower priority don’t get done today, and tasks that aren’t due for another week or two are postponed. 

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  • SNellis

    Timely…I have a meeting with my rep on our Executive Leadership Team tonight and their concern over my doing too much and facing burnout is certain to be a topic. Circumstances have caused my ministry responsibilities to change (read – things added, smaller things removed) three times in the past 9 months. I know I’m doing too much but need to learn how to stop. Anyone have a resource you’d recommend?

  • Todd Liles

    Love it. I will be there one day. I have a great growing team that is taking more of my “not do” list. I look forward to the day I can focus exclusively on my strengths.

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  • David O Jones

    Great message. I have seen too many really productive people burn out by taking on too much. Having a NOT-TO-DO list would surely have helped them.

  • NV Hadebe

    Really important for people, especially those who want to be successful, to understand that channeling your energy on the projects or task given to you will be the fuel to your vehicle to that promotion you rightly deserve. A very good article. I hope the way it was written and intended to be read will help you understand the importance of having your work schedule flexible, not for unnecessary time consuming tasks that wont let you be at your best, but for being available when it matters.

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  • Hugh

    I used to use the old BenFranklin list…left column labelled “Gotta Do,” right column labelled, :Don’t Gotta Do.” Really powerful way to back up the answer “NO! when someone wants to encroach on your life.